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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON – Tan Dun

December 8, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

crouchingtigerhiddendragonOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

After spending much of its history consigned to art-houses, lauded by critics but unseen by the masses, Chinese cinema is suddenly big business. The emigration west of some of its biggest names, notably action stars such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat, has undoubtedly paved the way for Chinese-language movies to reach a wider audience, and now the first true crossover hit seems to have come: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Director Lee has, of course, been making critically popular films in English for a number of years, from the Oscar winning costume drama Sense & Sensibility to the drama The Ice Storm and the civil war epic Ride With The Devil. Throughout his career, though, Lee has harbored a desire to make a wuxia pian, a Chinese costume drama combining traditional drama with martial arts. Lee has described Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as “Jane Austen meets Bruce Lee”.

The film stars the aforementioned Chow as Li Mu Bai, a revered and ancient Wudan warrior who, haunted by strange dreams, vows to give up his violent ways. He trusts Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a female warrior with whom he has long been in love, with Green Destiny, his priceless sword, which she has been asked to give to his old friend Sir Te as a gift. However, Green Destiny is stolen from Sir Te’s home, and the fingers of suspicion point to the witch Jade Fox, an evil sorceress who killed Li Mu Bai’s master, and whose death he has vowed to avenge. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien combine their skills to find Jade Fox, but soon find themselves embroiled in another matter involving the governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi), and a desert warrior named Lo (Chang Chen), both of whom seem to be somehow involved in Jade Fox’s plan.

There are two drawbacks with Crouching Tiger as a film: firstly, the dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, and may alienate a large proportion of its potential audience who are not used to reading subtitles. Secondly, the film is set in a largely fantastical world, the rules and stylistics of which may prove to be a little disconcerting to those who don’t understand the history of Chinese mythology. At the screening I attended, the audience regularly broke out into laughter during some of the action sequences, during which the fighters defy gravity, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, scaling vertical walls and flying through the air as they duel. In actual fact, these fight scenes are easily the best things about the movie: a half dozen spectacularly choreographed sequences that make The Matrix pale by comparison. The speed of the action, the grace and balance of the actors, and the intricacy and fluidity of the movement is nothing short of breathtaking. The performances, by the largely unknown Chen and Ziyi especially, are superb: these two are the crouching tiger and hidden dragon of the title: respectively, a seemingly violent man who is forced to adopt a lifestyle he dislikes simply to survive, and a free-thinking young woman stifled by protocol but who seethes with fearsome anger beneath the surface. The film is also bolstered by some magnificent photography by Peter Pau, who gives Qing Dynasty China a breathtaking natural beauty.

The score, by Taiwanese composer Tan Dun, is also one of the film’s major plus points. Having only scored one American movie (Fallen) previously, and despite having written widely-heard music for BBC’s millennium TV celebrations last year, Dun is still a relatively new name in the soundtrack world. This is likely to change following the wide critical acclaim he has received for his work here. I have said this before, but Oriental composers writing in a Western style are often more successful than Westerners trying to write like them. Dun’s score is a case in point: combining the familiar lush tones of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra with a cache of traditional Chinese instruments and a series of superb cello solos by the acclaimed virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon shimmers with beautiful themes and haunting textures that convey perfectly the mystical, exotic quality inherent in the story. It is undoubtedly one of the scores of the year, and is likely to garner a first Oscar nomination for Dun come February.

Basically, the score is a three way split between sweeping performances of the main theme, enchanting ethnic instrumental passages, and huge percussion-based interludes which underscore many of the fight scenes. ‘A Wedding Interrupted’ and ‘The Encounter’ are traditional orchestral action cues  – good, but not groundbreaking. On the other hand, ‘Night Fight’ seethes with furious energy, the percussion work of David Cossin sounding especially potent in these cues. Here, Cossin’s work is reminiscent of that of the magnificent Taiko drummers, who were used so effectively by the late Toru Takemitsu in his 1993 score Rising Sun. The drums convey the vast amounts of energy expended during the fight sequences, and give them an unstoppable, incredibly powerful quality that is both unique and brilliant. Interestingly, towards the end of the largely subdued ‘Through the Bamboo Forest’, Dun works in a series of eerie electronic “scrapes” which remind me of some of James Horner’s more avant-garde moments from Krull and others.

Overlapping each of these three elements, and effectively binding the score together, are Ma’s cello solos. Ma, who played such an important part in John Williams’ score Seven Years in Tibet, may have even surpassed that stellar work here. He dominates the score, contributing a series of darkly romantic performances to the opening track ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, before launching into a sweeping, spine-tingling assault on the senses in ‘The Eternal Vow’. Conversely, ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Desert Capriccio’ are quieter and more intimate, pitting Ma’s tones against a soft string backwash, while the finale in ‘Farewell’ is suitably grand and affecting. The song which concludes the album, sung in both English and Mandarin by Coco Lee, is also pretty decent, boasting poetic lyrics by screenwriter James Schamus and contemporary arrangements by Argentinian composer Jorge Calandrelli. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Oscar nominated here either.

It’s really no surprise that Sony Classical are investing so much time and energy promoting this score: both Dun and Ma are exclusive Sony artists, but it’s also the best thing to appear from their vaults since Titus. Dun’s reputation as a film composer of serious note seems to have been cemented. If all “martial art-house” movies in future will sound like this, long may they continue.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (3:24)
  • The Eternal Vow (3:01)
  • A Wedding Interrupted (2:16)
  • Night Fight (3:10)
  • Silk Road (3:08)
  • To The South (2:21)
  • Through the Bamboo Forest (4:23)
  • The Encounter (2:40)
  • Desert Capriccio (4:33)
  • In the Old Temple (3:46)
  • Yearning of the Sword (3:34)
  • Sorrow (4:02)
  • Farewell (2:25)
  • A Love Before Time (English Version) (written by Tan Dun, Jorge Calandrelli and James Schamus, performed by Coco Lee) (3:45)
  • A Love Before Time (Mandarin Version) (written by Tan Dun, Jorge Calandrelli and Kevin Yi, performed by Coco Lee) (3:38)

Running Time: 50 minutes 06 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89347 (2000)

Music composed by Tan Dun. Conducted by Tan Dun and Chen Xie Yang. Performed by The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, The Shanghai National Orchestra and The Shanghai Percussion Ensemble. Featured musical soloists Yo-Yo Ma, Ma Ziao Hui, Tang Jun Qiao, Alimjan, Kasim and David Cossin. Recorded and mixed by Richard King. Album produced by Tan Dun and Stephen Epstein.

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